Why use the term White Privilege?

white privilege card

One of my readers, Wortmanberbger, responded one of my previous blogs on White Fragility with the following :

Fine, but there is the danger of an ideologically distorting influence inherent in the phrase “white privilege”, which tends to frame these discussions. Whites are not privileged. Black people are oppressed, and white people are not, generally speaking, not to the same extent, not necessarily for the same reasons, although white people are also oppressed if they are poor or occupy an economically precarious position. This should not be forgotten and implicates the unwholesome influence of identity politics, which is beyond this comment. The terminology should be explicitly political: that of rights (the works: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness) being violated in the case of blacks, not privileges being had in the case of whites. This linguistic orientation is not mere semantics. “White privilege” subtly tends to suggest that the people at a higher social position should be brought down, instead of that the people at a lower social position should be raised up, taking their equality for granted. It is this aspect of the “discussion about race” that, I would argue, makes white people like me uncomfortable or not inclined to enter this constricting discourse frame.

Here is my response that evolved over time:

Hi Wortmanberger,

Thanks for your thoughtful response, and for giving me your permission to post it in a blog. I use it here because I think it is emblematic of the arguments against the concept of white privilege.

I use the term white privilege very intentionally — not for distorting influence, but to describe the truth of our social reality. You say that: ” Whites are not privileged. Black people are oppressed, and white people are not, generally speaking, not to the same extent, not necessarily for the same reasons, although white people are also oppressed if they are poor or occupy an economically precarious position.” Black folks and other people of color (POC) are oppressed by institutions in the US (and around the world), and that oppression boosts white people up. The two are intricately bound together — white people are advantaged economically, socially, and politically as a direct result of disadvantaging people of color.

Racism is different from personal disadvantage because it happens at both an individual and collective level. Everyone has some form of personal disadvantage, regardless of race, and some people have more personal disadvantages than others. Individual white people may have terribly difficult lives and some people (parents, siblings, friends, partners, or dates) may treat them horribly, but we white people are still the social default in institutions.

As an example, I am considered “too fat” by the larger culture (for what, they do not specify – wear a bikini I suppose), overweight certainly and possibly even obese depending on which measurement scale you use. The social stigma associated with my weight has been an impediment to me socially, romantically/sexually, and to my self-esteem. Pretty much anyone who is overweight in the US experiences some kind of stigma for their excess body fat at some point. My white privilege buffers me from some of the negative impacts of that stigma and discrimination, in a number of ways: 1) doctors provide me better quality care and take me more seriously as an educated white consumer, when I ask them questions they respond to me and do not generally talk down to me; 2) if a doctor is inappropriate with me about my weight – shaming instead of simply recommending (yet again) that I lose weight lest I give myself diabetes – then I can go to a different doctor and expect a different outcome, and I can keep looking for appropriate and sensitive care because I can assume that I am not being discriminated against because of my race; 3) if I am fat and “slovenly” or “lazy” or whatever other negative things people associate with fatness then it is just me, I do not have to bear the burden of being an example of how all of “my people” (the white people) are lazy, untrustworthy, fat, slovenly, or whatever – I am just me, not a stand-in for my whole race because white people are allowed individuality on a personal level; 4) if I decide I want to exercise more to lose weight then I am more likely to be able to live in an area where I can safely walk outside, and even run without fear of police harassment; and most importantly 5) because society is designed for my comfort and I do not feel under constant attack for my race, my stress level is lower than it usually is for people of color, which means my body produces less cortisol, and I am healthier even if I am rounder. So while I am disadvantaged by fatness, a person of color is disadvantaged by institutionalized racism and fatness – my white privilege buffers me from the impacts of institutional discrimination that make the personal negative outcomes so much worse.

In the United States, we must talk about and name white privilege because it is a systematic and race-based system of favoritism: Structural advantages built in to the system have helped white people and we often don’t even know it. Being excluded from these privileges makes life much more difficult for POC. This has given white people enhanced life chances and better job opportunities, and myriad daily comforts such as the relative freedom from surveillance by security or differential treatment by police. Whites don’t notice our privileges, so it is easier to both take credit for our own successes and be oblivious to the impact of racism on others.

Today white privilege expresses in residential segregation, vast wealth disparities, educational segregation, higher levels of unemployment among people of color, and significant racially based disparities in infant and maternal mortality, life expectancy, quality of health care, and simply the stress of dealing with racism and micro-aggressions all the time, which leads to higher rates of heart disease and stress-related illnesses (and contributes to lower life expectancy).

In another blog soon, I will talk about what white people can do to face white privilege and how we can be better allies to people of color.

Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, PhD, CASA, CSE

One of a handful of global experts on polyamory and the foremost international expert on children in polyamorous families, Dr. Elisabeth Sheff has studied gender and
families of sexual minorities for the last 16 years. Sheff’s television appearances include CNN, and the National Geographic, and she has given more than 20 radio, podcast, print, and television interviews with sources from Radio Slovenia to National Public Radio, the Sunday London Times to the Boston Globe and Newsweek. By emphasizing research methodology and findings in her discussions, Dr. Sheff presents the kind of public intellectualism that encourages audience members to think critically regarding gender, sexualities, and families.

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  1. Dear Professor Scheff,

    I appreciate your reply. I certainly don’t disagree with anything you’ve said about how racism sears black people at every turn. Frankly, I don’t know how black people stay sane. However, although I would like to hear what Glen Ford and Bruce Dixon at the Black Agenda Report say about this question (I generally agree with their social and political analyses), I must respectfully disagree with your insistence on the usage of this terminology, which, however well-meaning it may be, is fatally deployed by those whom I think are unsavory opportunists, such as Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton, as opposed to figures like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, who use racism to aggrandize themselves (Farrakhan and Sharpton, that is) and would rave about it until Kingdom Come even if it had disappeared.

    Yet, even if the overall aim of the phrase “white privilege” is not to cow white people and make them feel guilty, as opposed to informed, about their social position, then I would argue that the phrase nonetheless has this effect. One will lose much white support for the work of equality and justice, and will also confuse the issue, by not grounding this discussion in the explicit recognition of universal political, human, and economic rights that are being denied to black people and other minorities and not being denied to white people. Malcolm X did this (eventually), so should we. After all, the powers-that-be would like nothing more than to see the divisive effects worked by the envy and resentment that these racially charged phrases sew.


    1. What a lovely commenter you are Wortmanberger! You disagree with such thoughtful and well reasoned arguments that it is a joy to chat with you 🙂 Thanks for helping to elevate the level of Internet discourse above name-calling and flaming.

      I can see your point about turning off white people who would become allies but get so uncomfortable with the thought of white privilege that they withdraw from the conversation. Do you have any suggestions as to language that would work to call out racism, identify they ways in which white folks like me benefit from it, and still encourage the blossoming of equality? I am concerned that if we don’t identify white people’s part in racism, the conversation will remain stuck in “yeah, racism sucks, too bad there is nothing we can do about it.”

      Thanks again for your thoughtful discussion!!

      Cheers, Eli

      1. You’ve asked a difficult question. I don’t know that I have the answer – the problem is humongous – but the following quotation occurred to me in thinking it over: “Despite the ideological dogma to the contrary, the wealthy did not come into possession of the majority of the world’s resources by virtue of a more successful cultivation of the land, greater assiduousness, divine selection, etc. Rather, the historical fact is that this acquisition was carried out by means of a conquest that itself constitutes a monumental series of harms. As Balzac remarked in his Pere Goriot, behind every great fortune there lies a great crime. And the great fortunes deriving from the enclosure, privatization, and sale of what was formerly commonly owned land in Britain and Europe, among other places, not to mention the genocidal conquests of the Americas, Africa, and parts of Asia – among other former colonial possessions – are not excepted from Balzac’s observation. Indeed, the persuasiveness of distributive justice theories lies not so much in the recognition that the great majority of the resources of the world are held in a very few hands and that an equitable distribution of these would contribute to a just world. This is only part of the persuasiveness of these theories. The other part rests in the recognition that these very resources were once – and not very long ago, either – more or less held in common by most people in the world, and were only concentrated into extreme wealth by way of a series of murderous expropriations, and assembled into their valuable forms by mass enslavement, coerced labor, and other harms. As such, the redistribution of the world’s wealth is not simply a matter of distributive justice; it is a matter of restorative justice as well.”

        The idea here of “restorative justice”, though a high-falutin term, I think is the place to begin, in connection with the long-standing policy demand of reparations for slavery. White people should be relentlessly informed, and ideally should relentlessly think, about the details of slavery, Jim Crow, and the legacies thereof – again, not to feel guilty, but to begin to appreciate the warrant for this course of action, so that they may begin to make the individual psychological adjustments necessary to support this policy, and any concomitant measures necessary for this policy to be realizable, e.g. reduction of the military budget of the U.S.. The solution in any case must take place on the scale of the Marshall Plan, in the political arena, not just in the individual states of mind and actions of white people (though these changes are not unimportant). Two cents. Nice talking with you.

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